Down the rabbit-hole: Martin Wesley-Smith, David Del Tredici and the influence of Lewis Carroll

A Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderlandpublished in 2MBS-FM: Stereo FM Radio 102.5 in October 2002.

It has been over one hundred years since the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died, but the stories and poems he wrote as Lewis Carroll maintain a much-to-be-envied place in hearts and bookshelves the world over. There must be few in the Western world who have not encountered Alice in Wonderland – and for a number of contemporary composers, the Carroll effect has been hard to shake off.

Lewis Carroll’s masterly nonsense has exerted a pull on the minds of composers since its publication in 1865 (early fans included Debussy and Erik Satie). Today, two composers in particular – one Australian, one American – have devoted significant amounts of compositional energy to music based on Alice, The Hunting of the Snark and other works – and on their author’s life.

Sydney composer Martin Wesley-Smith was brought up on Alice, but only became captivated by the fertile ground of Carroll’s mind when his twin brother Peter (librettist for many of Martin’s works) introduced him to Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. Wesley-Smith was fascinated by the hidden world of logical puzzles to be found in the book, and by Carroll himself – and has since composed over ten works based on Dodgson and his writings.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is the musical Boojum! Loosely based on The Hunting of the Snark, Peter Wesley-Smith’s libretto for Boojum! is much more than a mere libretticisation of the original poem – it also intersperses glimpses of Dodgson’s life, including his friendship with the ‘real Alice’, Alice Pleasance Liddell, and fragments of other Carollian writings, including Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. The text also plays with Carroll’s words – in a manner of which he surely would have approved – to produce such wonderful lines as ‘I’m a Cheshire Cat-erpillar of society / Not a social butterfly’. The Wesley-Smith fascination with Lewis Carroll doesn’t stop with subject-matter and lyrics, however – much of the music of the two-hour Boojum! consists of references and musical games reminiscent of Dodgson’s fondness for puzzles. Wesley-Smith twists his melodies (often nursery rhyme tunes) around and plays them forwards, backwards , upside-down – reflecting Dodgson’s music box games with the young Alice Liddell: ‘He would put the cylinders in upside-down and backwards and the tunes they played were upside-down and backwards too!’

American David Del Tredici’s works may be seldom performed here, but he enjoys a substantial reputation in the States – largely built upon his early Alice works.

One of his earliest piano works – Syzygy – refers to one of Dodgson’s logical games, but after this work his focus turned to the two Alice books, resulting in the mostly modernist An Alice Symphony (1969, rev. 1976), Final Alice – a monodrama, which brought him to the attention of the musical world in 1976 – and later Haddocks’ Eyes (1986) and Child Alice (1977-81) which are more representative of his established neo-Romantic compositional style.

Del Tredici usually chooses to set poems by Carroll embedded in the main text of the Alice books, or poems referred to or parodied in the text. Haddocks’ Eyes, for example, is a setting of the White Knight’s song ‘A-sitting on a gate’ from Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, but the centrepiece of the work is an ‘aria’, the text of which is a poem by one of Carroll’s contemporaries. ‘I give thee all, I can no more’ is the opening line of My Heart and Lute, a poem by Thomas Moore, the reference to which (Alice’s words are ‘But the tune isn’t his own invention, it’s “I give thee all, I can no more”‘) has been interpreted as indicative of Caroll’s infatuation with Alice Liddell.

Del Tredici also acknowledges a debt to Martin Garner’s Annotated Alice and quotes from this book regularly in his notes accompanying the Alice work recordings. In his later Alice works, however, he turns more to programmes which have their basis in Dodgson’s life, while also including texts taken from the books. Child Alice – an evening-long work made up of four sections: In Memory of a Summer Day (which won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize), Quaint Events, Happy Voices and All in a Golden Afternoon – follows a typical day which Dodgson may have spent with Alice and her sisters, rowing on the Thames and inventing stories.

Music composed under a literary influence does not always convey the true spirit of the source. In the Carroll-influenced music of Martin Wesley-Smith and David Del Tredici, however, we find – as Del Tredici puts it in his notes on Child Alice – that they have supplied in music those of Caroll’s stories ‘that did not get written down’.